Fiction by Casey DW Jones
It all started shortly after we killed that possum. Coop and I were down at the Sandpits, an old gravel quarry filled with water, a half mile south of our trailer.
We were fishing for bullheads but catching carp, like normal, while sipping on half a bottle of peach Schnapps we found by the shower block. I had just finished the eighth grade and couldn’t talk anyone into hiring me on for the summer. Coop was eighteen, and getting ready for his senior year—in theory, anyway. We fished every afternoon back then, after he was done punching cattle, and before we saw Mom off for her closing shift at the Dart-In, where she ran the register. Coop would make supper for me and our little half-brother, Taylor, each night once it cooled off, and then he’d disappear again.
The last couple months Coop had been a right dick to everyone, especially if you had the balls to ask where was off to. I had heard whisperings around town about him falling in with a bad crowd again (something with drugs this time), but like any good inhabitant of Kearny County, Kansas, I took all gossip with a dump truck full of salt. Coop certainly had something weighing on his mind that June afternoon, but I was just happy he still wanted to fish alongside me, so I kept my mouth shut too as he stared off into the water. That was, until I spotted the possum in the cattails.
When I hollered, Coop ditched his fishing pole and drew his pistol from his belt holster. He was normally a dead aim, but the possum darted out of the tall stalks, right past Coop, in a dirty gray blur. It charged across the beach toward me, hissing and foaming while its ratty tail cracked like a bull whip. It was soon too close to me for Coop to squeeze off another round, so I flung some rocks at it and backed up until I butted up against the steep crumbly slope behind me. I had no choice but to kick at its ugly face as it attacked me. When it clamped its mouth on my left foot, I shook my high top to the bejesus, but that varmint wouldn’t let go.
Coop ran over and punted that possum square in the ribs with his cowboy boot and it went airborne and plunked into the sand and hissed one more time before it scurried off into the water. I was fuming because Mom just bought those shoes for me last week when Dad’s check finally showed up, so I took the cinder block we’d lugged down from the trailer to use as a stoop, put it on my shoulder, and chucked it like a shot put. Thwunkp. Bastard sunk before you could say marsupial.
“Goddamn.” Cooper took a big breath and tucked his pistol back into his holster. “That was one feisty fucker.”
A patch of foam collected on the surface of the water where the possum went down. I tossed another rock into the middle of the rippling rings and spat a loogie. He’d never come back up, just like the drunk who fell off his tractor tube into the Sandpits on Cinco de Mayo. One of the Search and Rescue guys was talking about it at the Dart-In a couple days later. He said that when they was diving for the Mexican man’s body (he called the Mexican something else I won’t repeat), they seen a catfish big as a school bus.
“We fish the Sandpits damn near every day and we’ve never seen one much bigger than ten pounds,” I said to the man. He was a Harris but I could never quite remember which one. All four of those similarly mustachioed Harris brothers were on the Rescue team.
“You Mossvak boys ain’t got no sort of luck,” he said, and pivoted his head back to the Keno on the TV.
A few days after the possum incident, I woke drowning in sweat inside my Coleman tent. I’d been spending my nights in the front yard for a few weeks, ever since I woke up with a mouse in my mouth and its turds all over my pillow. I unzipped the tent and crawled out and set off with my BB gun into the western pasture to stalk some larks. Coop’s truck backfired as he headed up the road leading to the highway and ultimately Graves’s Ranch, where he worked. But that morning he turned the other way instead, onto the access road for Shit Pond, an acre-sized waste pond which lay beyond our trailer about half a mile to the north.
Shit Pond, formerly Puckett’s Shit Pond, got its original name from Arby Puckett, a gas plant supervisor who used to own several junk houses and a bunch of useless land. Mom rented from him for about three years before he died of a clot in the head the summer before. For some reason, he signed over the trailer and the acreage, including Shit Pond, to Mom in his will. After Coop’s truck disappeared behind the biggest sandhill on our property, I made my way up to the access road myself.
Most sand dunes in that corner of southwest Kansas were covered with plastic tarps that folks pinned down with used tires, to keep the soil from blowing away, but this dune was laid bare to the Lord. The wind whipped grit at my face as I approached the shifting pile, and I began to regret my choice to pursue Coop, but a mix of curiosity and summer boredom propelled me. When I reached his truck on the other side of the sandhill, Coop was a quarter mile up the way, traipsing through the yucca and burr patches, toward the broken-down school bus. We both figured it hadn’t run since the sixties, judging from some of the old beer cans and porno magazines we found in there once. The shell of the bus was riddled with rusted bullet hole scabs, and every window had been busted out. I followed Coop at a good distance, glancing every other step, as it was still feeding hours for rattlers. The grasshoppers pinged around the brittle weeds and grass and cacti, and that didn’t do much to soothe my jumpiness. Coop appeared nervous himself. He pulled his cowboy hat down low over his face and checked over his shoulder. I crouched behind some sage and watched as he climbed into the school bus. A minute later, he reappeared with the yellow rubber boat we boosted from Walmart a ways back.
I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why he’d be needing that raft on Shit Pond, and I was officially tired of filling in the blanks surrounding his life. I didn’t want to sneak up on him, so when I got within a hundred yards or so I hollered his name. He grabbed at the butt of his pistol before he realized it was me.
“Christ almighty, Ethan. You just scared the ever-loving shit outta me.” Coop said as I ran up to him.
“Sorry. I was out after some birds and saw you heading out this way and wondered what you was doing. Don’t you have to work today?”
“Thought I’d go fishing first.” He couldn’t look me in the eyes. “By myself. Need to clear my head.”
“You and I both know there ain’t any fish in Shit Pond.”
“Maybe things have changed.”
“Where’s your fishing pole, then?”
“Musta forgot it. Now fuck off and head home.”
“God, you’ve been a grade-A, certified dickhead the last couple months. Least you can do is tell me what the hell you’re doing.”
Coop got the mean cloud in his eyes and took a twenty-dollar bill out of his boot and handed it to me. “Go home and keep your trap shut.”
“You can’t pay me off like that,” I said. “I’m staying right here.” I made to sit down, but there was an anthill right under me full of the big red bity fuckers, so I high-stepped over it and folded my arms and stomped a foot down.
“There will be a day when you respect the need for a man’s privacy. Have yourself a great fucking day.” He dipped his chin and lifted his cowboy hat slightly above his head.
Coop kicked the raft and made for his truck. I grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. He wadded up his fists, but I told him to hear me out and then he could wallop me if he still felt the urge. He said to come out with it already. He didn’t have time for my shit.
“Here’s the deal. While you’re out rodeoing, and punching cattle and chasing women, and going God knows where every night, I’m stuck out here with Mom and Taylor. Their doctor bills are through the roof and I can’t get a goddamned job and my bike’s got flat tires and I don’t have any money to get ‘em fixed. I don’t wanna be stuck here for the rest of my life.”
“I’ll get you some new tires tomorrow. You just worry about looking after Taylor and let me handle the rest.”
“What about the doctor bills?”
“Best thing you can do about those is stay out of my business and don’t tell nobody you ever saw me down here.”
You remember how I handled that possum the other day, don’t you? I’m not some useless little boy anymore. Please. Just let me help with whatever you got cooking, would you? I won’t tell nobody nothing.”
Coop smoothed down his moustache either way with the tip of his tongue and spat into the dirt. He walked over to the boat and started dragging it toward Shit Pond as I stood there like a fence post. “Well, what are you waiting for?” he said. “Grab them goddamned oars.”
Several doves fluttered above us, curious as to why we were stupid enough to be floating on Shit Pond. The water was dirty brown, almost rusty in the sunlight, and stunk like rubber and methane. Mom said they must’ve drilled for gas right around there at some point and just left all the wastewater behind. Some of the neighbors’ cattle wandered through occasionally, to cool off and piss and shit, but that was all Shit Pond was good for.
Once the water smoothed out, Coop stopped paddling up front and turned around to face me. He made me swear I wouldn’t tell a single soul what we were doing. I didn’t know how I could swear to a thing when I didn’t even know what that thing was yet, but I swore anyway.
“I ain’t fucking around this time,” he said. “You can’t go popping off like you done in the past.”
“I swear on my life, Coop. My lips are sealed.”
“Keep paddling. We’re almost there.”
I sure tried but Coop was so much heavier and bigger than me, and it was hard work paddling for us both. I started lifting weights a few months earlier with a couple of dumbbells Coop snuck out of the school gym, but I had a long way to go yet.
“Head on toward that jug, now,” Coop said and pointed up ahead, toward an empty milk jug bobbing in the water. It was knotted up with Coop’s preferred brand of utility rope, the kind with the blue thread braided through. He told me to stop paddling and then he leaned over and wound the rope around his oar and we circled around the jug and steadied. It was one of those smooth Coop moves I’d never think to make.
He leaned over the front edge of the raft and his biceps sharpened into jagged boulders as he pulled on the rope. He had a skull tattooed on his right shoulder with a knife in its teeth. He asked me to draw that for him last year, when he was away at juvey for stealing car stereos. Outside of numbers, drawing skulls and demons and naked girls was what I did best.
I poked my oar down as far as I could because the raft was starting to wobble, but I couldn’t find the bottom. A semi-truck out on the highway hit its Jake brake and I spazzed a bit, so Coop twisted around to shoot me a dirty look. You could hear for miles out there, depending on the wind. I looked back over my shoulder. I couldn’t see our trailer. The acreage between Shit Pond and the house was full of tall grass and weeds and useless junk: the broken-down school bus and a few other dead cars and pickups, two or three refrigerators and a couple coffin freezers, a crap ton of rusty plows and orange oil drums, and tangle after tangle of barbed wire. Smoke rose from the backyard, thick and black, which meant Taylor was burning trash again. That’s the one chore I could give him that we knew he’d do. He was kind of a special case.
Coop was grunting and cussing up a storm as he pulled up on the rope. I collected the slack as he hauled it in. Soon, he barked at me to pass him the fishing net. As I did, a metal object became visible just under the water’s surface. He scooped the net underneath the box and the raft trembled as he struggled to get it snared. I latched my fingers onto his belt loops and he grunted once more before dropping the net between us. It was a metal box, neither big nor small, and caked in a smelly black sludge folks in those parts called something that I won’t dare repeat. Mom walloped Coop good the last time he said it. She was always trying to get people to quit using hate language, with some occasional success.
Coop wiped the scum off the front of the box with his hand. I saw a numbered dial and that’s when I knew it was Dad’s safe. We stole it out of the grain bin the last summer we spent with him at his farm. That was two years ago. He was currently in the state pen for violating his parole, and the summer before he was in the psych ward at the VA. When we got the safe home to Mom’s and finally guessed the numbers, it was empty like Al Capone’s vault. I’d forgotten all about it until it was plopped down at my feet in that goddamned raft in the middle of Shit Pond.
Cooper cranked the dial and swung the door to the safe open. It was full of weed, split up into rectangular blocks wrapped up in layers of pink Saran wrap.
“Is that what I think it is?” I said.
“Damn. That’s a lot, isn’t it?”
“It ain’t a little. Five pounds. Exactly.”
“How long you been dealing?”
“A month or two. Started around the time Mom got on the oxygen tanks. A couple of guys at the ranch fronted me a pound. They get it flown straight up the riverbed from Mexico. I moved it quick, and made some good money, so I bought a bigger brick this time around.”
“Aren’t you worried you might get caught or killed even? I mean, this is some serious shit.” After I said that, my stomach fluttered and my heart leapt through my tank top. I had never in my life wanted to be a part of something as much as I wanted to help Coop look after the rest of the family.
“Not really. I got a pretty good system, and I never been in harm’s way. And listen. This is just a temporary thing. To get us over that hump. It’s just a lot more work than I thought, if I’m to keep up other appearances.”
“Goddamn it, Coop. I wish you’d let me in on this sooner, is all. Tell me how I can help.”
“Well, I sure suck at the numbering side of things. Ain’t nobody as good as you at that.”
Coop was right: there wasn’t a time in my life I didn’t know the whole multiplication table. I swear I was born knowing it. Going as far back as I remember, I could add and subtract and multiply faster than the teachers could plug it into their calculators. But that didn’t excite me all that much, to be honest. I wanted action.
“Don’t tell me that’s all you need me for, Coop. Come on.”
He took out a pouch of Redman and stuffed a wad into his cheek. “Well, I suppose I could use some help pickups and drop-offs. But I don’t want you meeting anyone face to face. And you sure don’t want your name brought up in all of this.”
“Whatever you need, I’m there,” I said. “I mean it.”
I glanced down at the dope, and back at Coop’s tanned face. He spat between his two front teeth, into the scummy water. I looked off toward the far shore. Some cattle had wandered up to wade, and a thunderhead was stretching itself into a giant black anvil beyond them, half a day’s drive away.
Over the next couple weeks, after we put Taylor to bed, we’d set off in Coop’s truck. He had a little blue S-10 with a red passenger-side door. The tinny little tweeter speakers he had hand-wired to the radio set up on the dash. They slid, along with his chaw pucks and cassette tapes, when he turned sharp—which was often.
We put a lot of miles on that shitwagon every night. We crisscrossed around town, duct-taping quarter bags to telephone poles and trashcans. Then we’d crack open a couple beers and hit the dirt roads, stashing sacks behind saltwater tanks and oil derricks, in duck blinds and tree stands.
During the days, I handled the cash pickups while Coop punched cattle. We bought us a membership to the pool and enrolled Taylor in swim lessons. While he was busy with that, I’d set off on my bike. Coop got my tires filled with some special foam at the Co-op, so they’d never go flat on me again. The envelopes would always be waiting right where Coop said they would be. He took care of all the face-to-face stuff. I felt nervous and anxious, sure, but never felt I was in any real danger. I’d take Taylor home after his lessons, and we’d have lunch with Mom. After Coop got home, he and I would “go fishing” for that night’s drop-offs at Shit Pond.
That summer I finally felt like I had a purpose. Especially while we floated on Shit Pond. I’d get real giddy going over the numbers. There were three-hundred twenty quarter-ounces in the first five-pound bale. At $30 a quarter, we stood to reel in $7,100. If we could sell through that and a whole ten-pound bale next, we’d be in really good shape.
One day, around the end of July, as we were gliding across Shit Pond and both a sweaty mess, I asked Coop what his plans were once school started back up.
“Can’t make no money in the classroom,” he said. “I ain’t smart like you.”
“I wish I could quit school. This is way more fun.”
“I don’t never wanna hear you say something that goddamned stupid again.”
A few nights later, Mom was having trouble breathing and wasn’t herself at all. Coop fried up some T-bones he bought from the meat locker while I scooped up all the cat shit around the dining table. We thought a nice meal would lift Mom’s spirits. And it did, till she got to fretting.
“I don’t know how I’m gonna pay the electric this month if I miss another shift,” she said and buried her face into her oxygen mask. “And I’ll never have the money to get my law license reinstated. That’s for damn sure.”
“Don’t you worry about none of that,” Coop said. “I’ll go down and pay the electric on Monday. Old man Graves just give me a raise and I’ve been getting some pretty steady money from roping purses.”
“That’s funny. Everyone at the Dart-In says you haven’t had much luck roping for quite some time.” Mom dropped her fork and hoisted herself up on her cane. She hobbled into the living room, swiped a cat off the couch cushion, along with the mouse carcass it was gnawing on, plopped down, and fired up a cigarette.
“Well, we can’t afford for you to keep on smoking. That’s for certain,” I said.
“Oh, for Christ’s sakes, shut up, Ethan,” Mom said. “And take Taylor with you to the waterbed to watch TV. Your brother and I need to have a meaningful dialogue.”
I picked up all the spilt cigarettes and Diet Pepsi cans and Hostess wrappers on Mom’s bed so Taylor could have a clear space to lay down. I turned the TV to a nature documentary on PBS. Taylor’s eyes glazed over like they always did, and I tiptoed back down the hallway and listened in.
“Those steaks are gonna burn a hole in all our stomachs,” Mom said.
“Who’d you even hear this shit from anyway?” Coop said.
“Linda Kovacs caught Bo out in their tool shed smoking a joint. He said he got it from somebody that got it from somebody that got it from you.”
“Goddamn, that’s a lot of somebodies. And you’s to believe Linda Kovacs over me?”
“Suffice it to say, she’s not the only one substantiating these rumors. This is a small town. People talk. And I know you’ve been running around with Ethan all the time. He better not be involved with any of this. I need him taking care of Taylor.”
“Involved in what? Jesus H. Christ. He’s a teenager now. He needs to get out. He’s stuck out here all the time. No friends. I feel bad for the little guy.”
“Do I look like I tumbled off the last fucking turnip truck that rolled through town? I swear to Christ, Cooper, if you get that boy caught up in your dumb shit, I’m liable to beat you bloody. Ethan isn’t like you or anybody else out here. He’s special. You, on the other hand… you’re too much like your father. You can’t stay out of trouble to save your own life”
“I wouldn’t need to save my own life, or anybody else’s, if you’dve just learned to close your legs instead of bringing us all into this shitbag world.”
Some glass broke, sounded like another window, and one of the cats got to screeching and wailing. The front door slammed shut and Coop’s truck roared to life and backfired before it droned off into the hot night.
A week later, Coop and I pulled into the empty parking lot at the swimming pool. Mom was back at work, after she finally let Coop pay for another doctor’s visit and got some fresh antibiotics. I hadn’t gone anywhere with Coop since his fight with Mom. We both agreed that was best, but tonight would be an exception. We had three and a half thousand dollars in cash in his cammo backpack on the bench seat between us. Our inventory was dwindling. There was only a half-pound left in the safe at Shit Pond.
In the middle of the parking lot, the biggest American flag you can imagine flapped and furled in the wind. Mosquitoes and June bugs and moths the size of meadowlarks zoomed and swarmed in the yellow glow of the floodlights pointing up at it. Coop told me to relax and take a deep breath and stop shaking, but I couldn’t help it. He wasn’t exactly a cucumber himself. He chewed on his nails and spat them out his open truck window.
Just as the Alice in Chains tape flipped over, a blue Monte Carlo pulled into the parking lot, with shiny rims and purple ground effects. They had rap music thumping, which wasn’t really my thing, and their big-ass woofers rattled their trunk and sent bass ripples across our windshield. They parked at the fare end of the parking lot. A big Mexican dude a little older-looking than Coop got out. He was wearing long, plaid shorts and had his black tank top tucked into his underwear. Some short and stocky white dude popped out of the other side. His baggy jeans were rolled up at the bottom over his Doc Martens, and his oversized flannel was unbuttoned so he could show off his gold chain. Both had backwards ball caps. Black. Raiders and White Sox. I didn’t recognize them from school or anywhere else around town.
Coop told me to wait in the truck. He jogged towards them, and they met in the middle of the parking lot. He gave them both a hard handshake, and they all slapped each other on the back. Coop didn’t really look like a drug dealer at all, with his sleeveless denim shirt, his cowboy hat with the rattlesnake hide wrapped around it, and his snug Wranglers all worn through in the back from his chaw pucks.
Those two chumps gave me the stink-eye as they talked to Coop, and after a couple minutes, Coop got back in the truck.
“Well?” I said, and shook the backpack. “They ready for the money?”
“What’s the holdup?”
“They want to talk to you first.”
“To me? About what?”
“See, these guys are Folks. Go by Yodo and Stump. You heard of them?”
“I heard of the gang. I never heard of these fuckers, though.”
“All of them do this stupid thing with people that ain’t Folk before they’ll deal with them. It’s kind of like an initiation.”
“I didn’t sign up for this to get beat down by no Garden City gangbangers.”
“It ain’t a beating exactly.”
“Well, then, what exactly is it, Coop?”
“They make you take three heart punches. They wallop you in the chest three times, as hard as they can.”
“What? And you knew they’d make me do this?”
“No, man. Course not. I figured since you was my little brother, and I already did it, they wouldn’t make you. I swear to God, I didn’t know.”
“I don’t want anything to do with this shit anymore.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I can fix this, I think.” Coop took off his hat and jostled his hair. He grabbed his pistol out of the glove compartment and tucked it into his boot. “Fuck. This is all my fault. Okay? Let me fix this.”
“Hey, don’t do nothing–”
I couldn’t tell what Coop said to them this time around, but I didn’t like the way things were going. Coop flailed his arms and started yelling. Yodo got a baseball bat from the trunk of his car and poked Coop in the chest with it. Stump shoved Coop, and they all started barking and Yodo choked up on the baseball bat. I felt like I didn’t have a choice anymore but to go over there and make sure Coop was safe and the deal went through. When I slammed the truck door, they all stopped jawing and stared at me as I walked right up to Yodo. “Come on,” I said, and banged my chest three times. “Let’s get this shit over with.”
Yodo smirked. “Look at this little pussy bro of yours,” he said and bellied up to me. “He’s still in diapers.”
Coop wedged himself between us. “Stop it,” he said to me. “You don’t have to do this.”
Yodo shoved Coop away and poked the bat in his chest. “Shut up, honky tonk.”
“It’s alright, Coop. I got this,” I said.
“Stump, you do the honors on this punk-ass little bitch,” Yodo said.
“Ethan, stop–” Coop said.
“For the last time, shut your bitch-ass mouth!” Yodo said.
Stump took his flannel off and pitched it to the asphalt. He had this big flaming pitchfork tattooed down his right bicep, and a joker on the other bicep. They were both pretty lame, without a lot of good shading or detail, but his arms were huge, even bigger than Coop’s. This was one of those clowns who did all bench but no squats. He cracked his neck to both sides, and a vein bulged out from his temple. Stump’s beard looked like it was drawn on with a pencil, but he had a huge menacing square jaw and cat’s eyes that bulged out when he breathed in. I shuddered.
“The deal is off,” Coop said. “No deal, assholes.” Yodo told him that was his last warning and poked him with the bat again.
“Shut up, Coop,” I said, not allowing my voice to tremble like it felt the need to. I spat at Stump’s feet. “I’m ready when you are, bitch.”
I had the wind knocked out of me before, but this was far worse. Blood flooded my brain, my fingers, my toes, and shot back into my chest in one big walloping jolt. My heart skipped a beat, and my legs went to jelly. I put my hand on the ground. I couldn’t breathe, was choking on my own spit, and could barely hold myself up. Tears began to spurt, but I did my best to clamp them down.
“If you cry it don’t count,” Stump said.
“Goddamnit. Stop. Stop it, goddamnit! I’ll take the rest for him, alright?” Coop said.
“That ain’t how this works,” Yodo said.
“But he’s just a kid, man,” Coop pleaded.
Yodo spat at Coop’s feet. “The rules are the rules.”
“Two more, dicklicker,” Stump said and fired another punch into my chest.
I don’t remember that second one. When I came to, I had the taste of blood in my mouth. Coop was yelling my name, but I couldn’t feel anything, let alone open my eyes. I just saw a rainbow of bright colors tumbling around like a kaleidoscope. For some reason, I thought of that stupid possum at the Sandpits and did what it should’ve done: I played dead.
Everything felt and sounded like I was at the bottom of the swimming pool. I heard yelling and the scuffling of boots and thuds and groans and rattles. But it wasn’t until I heard the gunshot that my senses fully returned. When I opened my eyes, I was on my back. The flag hung lifeless in bug-swamped light above me. I turned my head and saw Yodo laid out beside me. He wasn’t breathing, and his face was one big cave leaking oily blood onto the asphalt.
Stump was on top of Coop now, over by the bleachers where the parents sat during the swim relays. He had a knee in Coop’s chest, belting him good in the face. Stump reached around into his back pocket and pulled out a knife. I couldn’t see Coop’s gun anywhere. I stood and wobbled around like a newborn calf covered in birth cheese. But I got a little strength back with each step. Coop latched onto Stump’s wrists and I rabbit-punched that fucker in the head. Coop bit his arm and Stump dropped the knife. I picked up the blade and crouched down like they did in the movies, pretending like I knew how to fight with it. Stump froze for a moment, looked at the knife in my hand, and ran toward the car.
Have you ever had a dream where it feels like you can’t help what you do next, even though you know exactly what you’re about to do? Like the dream happens to you? That’s as best as I can describe what happened next. I could feel my arms and legs and fingers, but I didn’t really have control of them, you know? I knew what I was doing, and I didn’t want to do it, but I did it anyway.
When Stump reached into their car window, I buried the knife in his kidney. I put my whole weight into it, and the blade slid through him, down to the handle. The tip ground up against something hard and I heard this little pop, almost like when you poke at a Capri Sun too hard. I twisted the knife each way and Stump screamed. He called me a motherfucker and told me he was gonna kill me. I pulled the knife out and stabbed him again and again. Finally, he slid down the car door and curled up at my feet. He groaned and gargled and clutched at the big holes I carved in him. Coop kicked him in the head twice, and then Stump stopped moving.
I looked at Coop, his face like a rotten peach and bloody as hell, bent over with his hands on his knees and his chest heaving.
“You were never here,” he said and wiped blood from his lip. “Hurry. Get on outta here. You hear me? You were never here. Leave the blade.”
I dropped the knife and didn’t look back. I ran through the playground on the other side of the bleachers, shot across Railroad Avenue, and hopped a fence into the Wright’s backyard. Coop’s truck coughed and hacked and finally turned over. His tires squealed, and then I heard sirens. I climbed over the Wright’s back fence and crawled into their dumpster in the alley. I pressed a Popsicle wrapper against my bloody tongue and kept quiet. I threw up a time or two, whenever I thought about the sounds Stump made as he bled out.
An hour later, a freight train rumbled through town, and I figured it was the best time to climb out of the dumpster. The blue and red police lights strobed off the fences and the telephone poles and the houses and the trees next to the swimming pool, but I knew I couldn’t stay in there forever. I kept to the shadows in the alleys and made for the drainage canal on the other side of the tracks once the train had passed. I followed the ditch to where it ran alongside the backroad leading out toward our trailer.
I got home around eleven thirty. Coop wasn’t home and his truck wasn’t parked out front. Mom was gone. Taylor was asleep in her bed with the TV on to some British detective show.
Normally, I’d rinse off in the camp showers down at the Sandpits, but I wasn’t about to go anywhere. The well water in our bathroom smelled like boiled eggs, but I needed the clean. I couldn’t find a towel, so I stood in front of the mirror and air-dried and stuck out my tongue for inspection. I had bit right through it. I flexed every muscle I could and gritted my teeth as blood collected in my bottom lip. The longer I looked, the more I liked that hard-ass sonofabitch in front of me.
I was beginning to worry about Coop when the phone rang. It was Mom. I played dumb. She told me Coop had been in a big fight, but he was OK. She was gonna be a while with him at the cop station. She said whatever I do, don’t let those fucking pigs inside the trailer. They’d take us all away if they saw the state of it. I said alright and I slammed the phone down and punched the wall. Coop was sitting in jail and we were both nearly killed and all she was thinking about was her dump of a house. I checked on Taylor again, and he was alright, so I went outside and waited. I’d be no use to anyone in jail, and Mom was right: they’d surely take Taylor and me away if they got a look inside. My mind jumped all over after that, wondering what happened to our money, when I would see Coop again, and if anybody saw me that night.
I stood on the porch and waited. When the police headlights shone down the road, I walked up the drive to meet them. They got out and stood there with their stupid little notepads, and we leaned against our broken-down Caprice Classic. The one cop, Gonzales, had been in town forever. His son was in my grade. Kind of a fat-ass, but a nice enough kid. The other cop was some drug task force guy I didn’t recognize. He took himself a lot more seriously. He said they’d seen me running around with Coop all summer. I kept my split tongue tucked behind my crooked teeth and said duh, that’s my brother, and I ain’t got no car yet. I told them we fished together mostly, rode around and listened to music, because there ain’t shit else to do in this county.
“You’re telling me,” Gonzales said, but the other guy wasn’t too amused.
They asked me what I was doing earlier and I said fishing, and they asked if I knew where my brother was that evening and I said he was probably went off to rustle up some girls, he’s sure got a way with them, don’t he? I told them Mom called me already and said Coop was in jail, but I didn’t know just for what. I asked if my brother was OK.
They said he was fine, and then they wanted to talk to Taylor. I said sure but he don’t like strangers. The state guy followed me up the steps and peeped in the window, but I told him to wait his ass outside unless he had a warrant. He said he didn’t have one and he made some stupid remark about our Christmas tree still being on the porch. I told him we had meant to burn it, but we just hadn’t got around to it yet.
The state guy was mean toward Taylor, which sure didn’t help his cause. When Gonzales started asking questions nice like, Taylor told them I was fishing at the Sandpits that night, which was always his default answer. Gonzales asked me if I caught any fish or not.
“Have you ever known anyone in this family to have any sorta luck?” I said.
Gonzales got a chuckle out of that one, too. but the state agent said they’d be back. With a warrant and most likely someone from Child Protective Services. After the cops were gone, I put Taylor in front of the TV and hauled ass down to Shit Pond.
The raft glided toward the milk jug, bobbing and glowing white under that bright half-button moon. When I got there, I reached down and pulled on the rope, just like Coop had done time and again, till the veins in my arm popped out like little tree roots. The safe didn’t budge. I leaned over some more. I remembered back to when Coop pulled out one of my rotten baby teeth with a pair of pliers. I tugged with all my might. For him. The safe dislodged, but I couldn’t keep it moving upward. The rope carved through my hands like butter and the safe sunk to the bottom and took me along for the ride.
I coughed out a bitter mouthful of pond slime, and it burnt like battery acid on my split tongue. I wiped the foul syrup from my eyes with the back of my hands. Eyes and palms stinging, I flipped the raft back over and tried to climb in. But time and again I shot off the slick rubber and ended up right back where I was, dog pagddling in Shit Pond. Soon, I was officially dogshit tired. My clothes were heavy, and I was short of breath. I kept my mouth closed and breathed through my nose, because I’d tasted enough shitwater to last a lifetime.
With my lungs about to burst, I set to picking apart all six of Coop’s tight-ass knots with my fingernails, cussing him the whole time. I figured nobody would know to look for the safe at the bottom of the pond, but a bobbing milk jug might just raise some suspicion. Finally, I got the milk jug loose and tossed it into the raft. I swam to each oar and chucked both of those in the raft, and steered it all toward shore.
In the shallows, I stood up, and the mud swallowed my legs up to my knees. I used one of the oars to pry myself loose, but my left foot slid straight up out of its shoe. I fumbled for it, but I had to make for it. Headlights beamed over the school bus and poked through the bullet holes of the oil drums and junk cars and the refrigerators. I hopped on one shoe to the bus and found a rusted bottle opener. I took off my wet shirt and wrapped it around my bloody hand and stabbed that sonofabitching raft more times than Stump. I wadded it up and collected the oars and the bastard milk jug. Flashlights were beaming through the tall grass and useless junk. I kept my head low and crawled next to a coffin freezer, threw everything inside, and slammed the lid shut.
Casey DW Jones grew up in the high desert of southwestern Kansas. He graduated from the University of Kansas and holds an MFA from Hamline University, where he served as a fiction editor for the Water-Stone Review. Casey works as a communications professional and resides in Minneapolis with his wife, two daughters, and adorably vicious dog. Recent work of his has also appeared in Stoneboat Literary Journal.